What's in a mobile MMO, anyway?

We play them, but why?

What's an MMO?

The definition of MMO varies more than one would think. How many players is required for it to be considered "massively multiplayer"? How much instancing is acceptable? Is it an MMO if it doesn't have fishing?

Let's start with the definition that an MMO is a game with a shared, persistent world that contains unpredictable player interactions (and fishing). Player caps and instancing and all that muddy the waters.

Ok, but how is a mobile MMO different

Consider a classic MMO like Everquest. Now consider trying to play it on a 4x8 screen with touch controls. A mobile MMO is a different type of game. It absolutely must have convenience features that are optional at most on desktop games. Zone size has to be considered, for example. In BDO, I can spend ten minutes or more just running from one place to another. That isn't really acceptable gameplay on mobile. It just wastes battery life and isn't fun. If I'm playing WoW, I've probably got at least twenty different abilities to use, with some of them being highly contextual. On a small screen with touch controls, that doesn't work. Think about PSO2...on mobile? Obviously, mobile has different needs.

The Common Patterns

Mobile MMOs tend to have:

  • Fewer skills
  • Simpler fights
  • Autoplay
  • Smaller zones

These would feel out of place in a desktop game, but they streamline the play for a mobile game and make the best use of the player's time and the battery life. Mobile MMOs are great for a quick ten minutes of play while in line at the bank, not a marathon four-hour raiding session (looking at you, WoW). The game needs a different concept of gameplay to be successful.

The Socializing

One area that could be improved is in the socializing part. I love hanging out in a main town and just chatting, but that is ...hard on mobile. Typing on mobile isn't great and the small window makes it hard to read, especially if the usual spam content scrolls at light speed. Autoplay is nice here because my character can do its thing while I'm just hanging out and chit-chatting. If any mobile MMO devs are reading, allow players to expand the chatbox over the whole screen (with some transparency) so that they can get more out of the chat function while still seeing the game behind it.

Final Thoughts

MMO players love to argue about what really makes a game an MMO. I'm not looking to settle that debate, but I did want to share my thoughts on how mobile MMOs are, and must be, different. For me, I love a shared world with random player encounters. I don't necessarily want forced group play (my time is unpredictable), but I love just running into people and co-operating on a simple world task, like a world event. Add in some chat and emoticons, and I'm a life-long player.